Memoir Of A Good Death

Event, Fall 2011 (Vol 40.2)

Another hard-to-classify book, as implied by its mixed-genre title, is Anne Sorbie’s Memoir of a Good Death: A Novel. It begins,

Have you ever wondered about the moment of your own death? I rarely did, but in the months that preceded mine I felt as if I’d been severely wounded.

My father died on January 27, 2001, and my own life came to an abrupt end exactly six months later.

Initially, the tale-from-beyond-the-grave works well. Narrator Rhegan is, or was, a Calgary realtor; imagery and metaphor drawn from her trade colour her life-story. Possibly related to a bear, she has a voice that’s distinctive, mordant at times, humorous:

From the moment of my conception I wondered who owned the womb I grew in, wondered at five years of age why Ed and Sarah called me their child, wondered at fourteen when I towered over my parents, why they thought I was a commodity they would eventually trade.

She offers this wry life-summary: "I had legally married and divorced five men before I died at the age of thirty-seven. Sarah and Ed were married for forty-three years. I married for the first time at twenty-one and that merger ended before a year had gone by."

A second narrator is Rhegan’s mother, Sarah, whose chapters (8 of 32) are written in the second person. Sorbie handles this well, providing the two women’s alternating views, loving and judgmental, of grief. The voices work together as the two struggle with the loss of husband/father Ed and with the lure of their own deaths. They try to move into a shared future through a canoe trip on the Bow River, while each revisits her own difficult history. Sarah says,

You rode your bike from Bowness to Tenth Street and walked out to the middle of the low span. Even during the month of May, there simply is not enough water to warrant an attempt. You decided quickly that a jumper might seriously injure herself on the rocks covering the river­bed. The last thing you want is to be confined in a living shell because you broke your neck or back as the result of a dive into a too-shallow stream.

 In the novel’s final third, Sorbie offers vivid, detailed descriptions of canoeing and of the land- and waterscapes the narrators meet:

After three quarters of an hour of silent zigzagging through gravel bars, we pulled out to change positions. I didn’t want Sarah to be at the helm when we reached the Highwood. There weren’t any significant rapids but the standing waves had to be negotiated head on. Each river folded in on the other at the conjunction like ingredients suspended in a mixing bowl.

And, later, this:

Bleak images of cold rock and frigid water inhabited my mind that afternoon. Even when the Seebe-Exshaw area is hot, there’s a coldness about the place. Maybe it’s caused by great gusts of glacial air resident in the gaping holes, in the mountains — updrafts from dead-end mine shafts. Perhaps the disruption of the natural flow of the river gives the region a stilted feel.

Memoir of a Good Death deals with important themes—not only loss but also home, dishonesty, ownership, the limits to knowing another person, the need for love, the terrible strength of habit. However, not even the vivid descriptions combined with strong main characters can carry the novel’s weight. Wordiness, excess detail and incident, unnecessary minor characters, and overuse of first person make the story difficult to navigate and the novel is far too long. The fearful climax too, though brilliantly visualized, is problematic. From the outset, readers know that the bear is coming, yet as the pages turn there is ever more explicit foreshadowing. A subtler strategy might have been to take readers nearly by surprise into sorrow.

Nevertheless, at its best, this writing has the assurance that can only come from intense knowledge of one’s material. In exploring tex­ture, sound, temperature, movement, Sorbie uses her poet’s skills to awaken the reader’s sensory perception. — Cynthia Flood

Alberta Views "Bookshelf" (May 2011)

 

Anne Sorbie completed her M.A. in creative writing at the U of C in 2003 and has since taught creative writing, autobiography and memoir. Her first novel, Memoir of A Good Death, is the culmination of all of the above.
As in any good story, the embryo for this Calgary-based novel is skilfully laid out in the first chapter. The book opens with narrator Rhegan Flett, descended from a mythical liaison between her ancestral grandmother and a Norseman’s bear, who is a present-day realtor of exclusive riverfront properties and the only adult daughter of Sarah and Ed Flett. She is 37, fiercely independent, childless, legally married and divorced five times — six, if you count her silent longing for common-law husband number two, Liam. The conflicted Rhegan will be fatherless by chapter’s end, at odds with her mother and dead herself within six months — hence, Memoir of a Good Death.

 

Rhegans father, Ed (as she refers to him), lies on her mother’s side of the bed, where Rhegan ponders not only his death, but also, knowingly, her own; “I wondered what the dying knew and the living did not, if our perceptions changed as our bodies shut down, if we adapted as if sightless or deaf, if we accepted the loss of what we had known. I wondered if dying forced us to let go of anger and love, or if death was like a form of impotence.” Like origami, the story folds in on itself as Rhegan remembers better days, days before grief and loss, the childhood water-under-the-bridge tension with her mother that Sorbie alludes to but doesn’t reveal. We see fleeting glimpses of Rhegan as realtor and property owner, house floods, a flipbook calendar of her ex-husbands — we’re asked to pay particular attention to Liam, and for good reason, because here lies the wedge of malcontent: her lingering love for him, her mother’s censure for her childlessness, the stone that weighs down both mother and adult daughter.

Interspersed with Rhegan’s narration are her mother’s thoughts: “You think about the grandchild who never was and wonder if he/she could have helped ease the pain you feel now, the pain that your daughter wants you to ignore. You decide not.” While interesting, the second-person point of view isn’t widely used outside of literary magazines and writing programs and so produces a jarring effect, pulling the reader out of the cleaner, compelling voice of Rhegan. Perhaps we needed more of the mother’s voice (she is potentially a fascinating character).

In the months following her father’s death, Rhegan prepares for a canoe trip with her mother in hopes of distracting them from their grief, and perhaps repairing the sutures that bind them. In the interim, her mother has ideas of her own. She plans to release her husband’s ashes in the Bow River, and hints at a decisive relief to her grief that isn’t revealed until the novel’s end.

Outside the mother/daughter/Liam tension is the ever-present fact of the narrator's death. The book offers lyrical descriptions of Lake Louise and Banff and mountains — history and hotel landmarks that anyone familiar with the area will revel in — all of which cleverly lull and seduce the reader into forgetting the inevitable so elegantly laid out in chapter one: Rhegans death. The entire novel, as winding and tumultuous and unpredictable as the Bow River itself, operates as a conductor between daughter and mother, and Sorbie takes full advantage. The ending is wholly absorbing, absolutely riveting — exactly as it needs to be.
— Lee Kvern’s second novel, The Matter of Sylvie (Bundle & Glass), is out for public consumption.

Canadian Book Review, April 5th, 2011

Memoir of a Good Death is Anne Sorbie’s debut book, published by Thistledown Press. Thistledown had already scored a recent home-run with Darcie Hossack’s Mennonites Don’t Dance so I was excited to read this book since it looked good and I had faith in the publisher. This is the story of Rhegan and her tumultuous relationship with her parents and multiple (lots and lots of) husbands. This book takes a lot of chances; the story, for most part it, is straight realism but the point-of-view is very post-modern, the story is straightforward but there are lots of surprises along the way.

I really enjoyed this book. This is a highly literary novel that I could easily see standing the test of time and getting a lot of scholarly attention. It’s a very dense book, and I really mean this as a positive. Coming in at 266 pages, this book felt more like a 500 pager in both volume of story and fulfillment. As I read this book I thought it was a bit of a contradiction, there is a ton of story, but yet not much really happens. The story is set in a relatively narrow time frame and there a really a small number of characters. All of these things combined made Memoir of a Good Death a very satisfying and original read.

Something that is essential to enjoying this book is the ability to, as they say in theatre, suspend disbelief. It is made clear right from page one that this book is told from the first person point-of-view of a dead woman, Rhegan, with occasional chapters switching to an interesting second person point-of-view revolving around Rehgan’s mother, Sarah. At the start of the book I was worried that the fact that I already knew Rhegan was dead might ruin the story. It definitely does not. There are a lot of unexpected turns in the plot that keep you turning the page.

The ending of the novel is very intense.I had to let this book sink in for a few days before I wrote this review. This is not a book that you can rip through in a couple days, if you do you will lose the magic of the story. It took me about 8 days to finish and absorb every sentence. Memoir of a Good Death is a dark and esoteric novel that will haunt you long after it is back on the shelf.